Changing traditions, changing culture: The examples of Mater, Congé, Prize Day

Bill Hulseman
11 min readJan 28, 2021

When I started teaching, I was most quickly and most compellingly introduced to the culture of Sacred Heart schools through the traditions that my school celebrated. Beyond the common practices associated with developing school culture, these customs communicated much about the mission and rich history of the Religious of the Sacred Heart, crystallized a connection not only between students and their contemporaries around the world but also to their predecessors, and shaped the ways that students (and teachers, administrators, parents, alumnx…) experienced and understood the world. In this light, these traditions highlighted the broader function of schools as laboratories for culture.

Now, schools are called to reckon with their troubling histories and deficiencies in attending to racial injustice, but I fear that too many schools will leave their traditions and their symbolic lives untouched. This seems to be rooted in a few things: the “we’ve always done it this way” attitude; the “I don’t have the authority to change this” belief in inheritors of tradition; the “I don’t even know where to start so let’s just do it the same as last time” desperation; and for some (or, perhaps, many), the “I don’t care” approach of people who don’t recognize the impact of traditions on individuals, on communities, and on the cultures they feed. I can’t attend to all of these, but my experience working Sacred Heart communities gave me a starting point for understanding how traditions are, can be, and should be simultaneously preserved to maintain their connection to history and adapted to attend to the needs of community members and to reflect their values.

Since the early nineteenth century, Sacred Heart schools have maintained many of its original traditions while others have faded into memory, and the ones that survive reflect adaptations and reinterpretations that reconcile the practice with the needs of the community. Traditions marking the same occasion look and feel very different in each school, reflecting its unique geographical, cultural, and historical setting, but there’s always enough for an enfant du Sacré Coeur — a song, a phrase, a story, an image that is familiar and celebrated in every community — to know what’s going on, what it’s for, and what it means.

Three Sacred Heart traditions stand out to me: Mater, Congé, and Prize Day. Mater is shorthand for the Feast of Mater Admirabilis. The Feast itself is not a widely celebrated feast in the Catholic church, and Mater Admirabilis, “mother most-admirable,” is not a commonly used honorific for Mary, the mother of Jesus in the Christian gospels. A Feast typically commemorates an event or a canonized saint, but this one is connected to a fresco in the cloister of the Trinità dei Monti, the church and monastery at the top of the Spanish Steps in Rome that has been home to the the Religieuses du Sacré-Coeur de Jesu (the source of the initials RSCJ with which women of the order sign their names) since 1828. The image was painted in the 1840s by a young postulant (who had never done a fresco before) and hidden by a curtain (ostensibly because the curtain protected the painting as the paint dried, though the story told to me was that the Superior of the community thought the fresco was ugly. When Pope Pius IX visited the convent in 1846, he pulled back the curtain and gasped with awe (or shock, as some tell it) at the sight of the image and spurted out, “Mater admirabilis!” The name stuck. (See the RSCJ’s site for more information about the painting and other traditions.)

Image of the painting “Mater Admirabilis” by Pauline Perdreau.
Mater Admirabilis

The image of Mater (as she is affectionately known in Sacred Heart communities) generally conforms to traditional iconographic standards — she is painted in the traditional blue cloak (representing the heavens) and red garment (representing the blood of Jesus), and the objects around her are emblems of her virtues — but it really doesn’t look like other images of Mary. The blue cloak reminding us that she is Queen of Heaven is almost cast off, behind her shoulders, and the red garment beneath dried into a bright pink dress, perhaps the effect of an inexperienced frescoist. Its oddness might’ve been the very reason Mother Superior tried to hide it. Still, a miracle associated with Mater occurred one October 20th, the date of the annual Feast, and at least one copy of the image is in every Sacred Heart school around the world. Some of the copies are paintings, others sculptures. The image has been pressed onto a small medal that is given to students in many schools, though the reason and timing of the medal is different with each school. My favorite adaptation is a window at Stuart Country Day School in New Jersey — an outline of Mary and her iconographic emblems are imposed on the glass of a floor-to-ceiling window, robbing the image of its original palette but taking in the colors that the sun and the trees outside provide over the course of each day and each year.

I’m not often drawn to icons of Mary. In part, this is because praying with icons is not part of my personal practice, but, really, it’s rooted in my discomfort with the history of images of Mary that reflected less the Mary of the gospels and at the heart of Christian piety and more what a patriarchal culture expects of women. When she introduced the image to me, the Head of my school gave me an insight as to why this image remained central to the culture of a religious community concerned with the education and empowerment of women. She told the history of the painting, of the young artist, the Superior, the Pope, the miracle. She described its setting in the corridor of the Trinità with a hint of pride in the Sacred Heart community’s residence in such a spectacular setting. Then she described the symbols: the lily to her right suggested virtue, the spindle in her hand, industriousness, and the book to her left, wisdom. Interpreted together, in the context of a school and in the context of a society of women, these emblems represented everything a child of the Sacred Heart should do: she should develop character (a subject of great importance to the founding mothers of the order), she should work hard, and she should keep learning. My Head’s elevator pitch about the image didn’t attend to the complicated history of devotional images; instead, she told us what was important to know.

Most schools’ observances of the Feast of Mater don’t include a deep dive into discussion of the patriarchy. Instead, observances involve a lot of pink. Mary’s garment inspires everything from pink frosting on cupcakes to pink flowers in processions, from pink accessories to make the uniform a bit more festive to all-out pink clothing. Some schools really relish it as a Feast, with an all-school liturgy and special community celebrations, while others implement it into lessons or connect the feast to service activities. For many, the heart of the celebrations remains the veneration of Mary, the mother of Jesus, but, like many Catholic schools today, Sacred Heart schools are religiously diverse communities, and the image’s theological narrative isn’t always the thing that ties a Sacred Heart community together. However, encountering the image of Mater is an experience that les enfants du Sacré Coeur have shared for about 175 years, and donning or decorating or consuming all things pink, inspired by her bold pink dress, is really a celebration of community and of their connection to each other.

Mater Admirabilis at Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, Princeton, NJ.

Taken from the French verb conger, Congé refers to the tradition of surprise play days for school communities which goes back to the earliest Sacred Heart schools. At my first school, Congé was an annual, all-school event whose date and festivities were known only to the Head of School and the Committee of Games, the cabal of students and one or two teachers who quietly planned the day under the shroud of secrecy and a blood oath-like devotion to maintaining the surprise. As faculty members, we were sometimes invited to participate in the cast of Congé in some way — as a character in a who-dun-it mystery, as a panelist in a parody of American Idol, as a game operator. We’d receive a few tips for our character and costume but nothing like a date or roster of other participants! Faculty enlisted into the event would exchange the knowing look of, “Ah, you, too…do you have any idea when?!” Students who thought they’d deduced the date or the event would always be sorely disappointed; rumor had it that if the real date was identified, the Head of School would immediately cancel and look for another date. The faculty at my second Sacred Heart school were less tolerant of such surprises, and we, under what felt like ominous consequences, swore to maintain the secret date. Teachers would often collaborate to fill the assessment calendar with quizzes and tests and due dates for papers to throw students off the trail. That school did several Congés — a surprise day for each academic division, and one all-school Congé celebrating the Feast of Madeleine Sophie, the founder of the RSCJ order, at the end of May.

The original intent of Congé was pretty practical: like Holi or Mardi Gras or Purim, during a busy time of year, especially in late winter, communities need to collectively let off some steam. But Sacred Heart communities added a couple of layers. First, Congé encouraged everyone in the community to put things in perspective. Assessments and tasks scheduled for a Congé date were dropped or excused. I always understood this to mean that the grades and assignments and dates and deadlines and minutiae of the day-to-day life of the school, the things that trigger our anxieties and fears, aren’t the sum or even the priority of education. Congé turned our heads to focus on each other, on community. Second, the roles we typically played in that community were transformed. Students didn’t study for a day, teachers didn’t teach — and, playing together, we got to know each other as people, not just teachers or students. Through the 1960s, most of the teachers were women religious donning traditional habits and wimples, and seeing those teachers step out of the classroom to play with them must’ve been startling and delightful, but even now, with the staffs of schools almost completely composed of lay people, that reordering of boundaries continues to strengthen the relationships that are so crucial to the mission of the order, making love (specifically, the love of the heart of Jesus) known.

Finally, Prize Day. Originally, an assembly called Primes marked the end of each week in Sacred Heart schools, and in addition to recognizing their academic progress, students also received medals to recognize special achievements and a card reflecting their behavior and character over the course of the week — Tres Bien, Bien, or the dreaded Assez Bien. The term Tres Bien lingers in Sacred Heart schools as a nostalgic referent for a publication or event, and the weekly assembly has been transformed and adapted to different schools’ needs.

In my first Sacred Heart school, the end of each semester was marked with an assembly that reflected the formality of the original practice. The content of the assembly, while it included more conventional school practices like honoring students who achieved some distinction and distributing awards for special contributions to the community, was made particularly Sacred Hearty in more subtle ways: every student’s name was called at least once, whether they earned any special recognition or not; the most important and anticipated awards recognized commitment to the Goals & Criteria, five principles that guide the daily life of Sacred Heart schools, reflected a sometimes weeks-long discernment by classmates and teachers; and the ceremony was only open to students, faculty, and the staff of the school. These reflected the school’s and the order’s particular approach to being student- or person-centered — every member of the community was invited into the preparation for the event, and the performative, PR-aspect typical of honors assemblies was restricted to participants only — no passive observers. In addition to the year-end Prize Day tradition, my second school included a Lower School division which maintained the weekly Primes ceremony. Marked by the same formality of the term-end occasion, Primes gives the Head of School a regular and intimate opportunity to connect with students reminiscent of the role of the Mother Superior shepherding her community, and faculty members honored one or two students in each classroom with a special medal recognizing character or effort in a developmentally appropriate way and framing it in language of the Goals — highlighting one child’s efforts to console a friend who was sad as community building (Goal Four), or another child’s independent hard work on a project that was especially challenging for her as respect for intellectual values (Goal Two).

Most Sacred Heart schools have retained the formalism and language of Prize Day, but communities have adapted them to be more developmentally appropriate and culturally sensitive. Ritualists often seek to identify the effects of a practice — what happened? What changed? What was learned? Like Congé, its formality and reflection of longstanding traditions give students and staff alike a direct connection to their predecessors and their contemporaries in different settings, and the structure of the form, echoing the ritual life of the convent, emphasizes proximate relationships. The adaptations made along the way, attending to the differing needs of students and values in each community, both align the core work of the school with contemporary “best practices” in education and enable the order to continue to deliver on its mission.

Mater, Congé, and Prize Day and traditions like them connect students to the past through their formalities and the retelling of their histories, but experiencing each of them is what actually crystallizes the connection between the present and the past. While some schools find pride in never-changing institutions, educators in Sacred Heart schools made choices along the way to ensure that their traditions not only found solid roots in the past but also provided experiences that would shape their students’ futures. The key was not just reviving and repeating old forms and actions; instead, they identified what was at the core of each tradition, they understood who the tradition was for, and they had a clear vision of the world they wanted to shape. For the RSCJs, the mission to make God’s love known in the world was at the core of each practice, providing an easy lens through which to see which constructs built along the way should be reinforced and which should be dismantled. For the RSCJs, relationships constitute the starting point for that mission, and in Sacred Heart schools the relationship between students and teachers is the starting point for education.

Not all of the traditions in Sacred Heart schools have been adapted to respond to their community members’ needs, to reflect their current values, or to align with contemporary insights about education and human development. Sacred Heart schools were among the independent schools whose alumnx and students publicly identified hypocrisies, patterns, and experiences through @blackat social media accounts. This particular network of schools, however, has a well-practiced model in place for simultaneously maintaining and updating its practices.

All school communities have been called to reckon with the history of systemic and institutional racism and injustice, and I’m not sure all schools will rise to the challenge of examining their traditions, practices, and cultures through the lens formed by 2020. My reticence doesn’t reflect cynicism about the intentions of school leaders and community members; instead, most schools will fail to adapt their traditions because they don’t have a vocabulary for adaptation, because they don’t have relevant examples to look to, and because they haven’t experienced it. Basically, they don’t know where to start. The examples explored here should offer hope and a model for where to begin, not only for Sacred Heart schools striving to live up to their mission and to the vision of the Goals but to any school that values its traditions but values its people more.

In a different post, I reflect more broadly on the potential for schools to change their cultures by changing their traditions. If you know of a school tradition that has been adapted, I’d love to hear about it. Let’s connect!

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